Kol Isha: Where are you ('ayeka')?

Reflections on Lamentations.

mourning painting 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mourning painting 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I spent my adolescent years in a North American metropolis and remember the chilling refrain on the evening radio: "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" It was the era before cellphones and instant messaging. At the time, I was rather oblivious to my parents' concern when out late, but now that I am a mother of teenagers, I understand. The life threads between parents and children could be severed in an instant. Milk cartons had pictures of abducted children. That question, "where are you?" haunts parents at night; it has also haunted God throughout history. The Book of Lamentations presents the question where are you (ayeka) as a double-edged sword. It opens with the verse: "How [eicha] lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become..." (Lam. 1:1). Beginning with alef, the term fits the acrostic of the poetic form and also sets the tone of lament. Serving as a rhetorical device, it posits the question of theodicy (God's justice) most acutely: How could God have punished Jerusalem and the Jewish people so severely? With an alternative vocalization, "how (eicha)" can also be read as "where are you?" (ayeka). Is the question meant to address us or the Almighty? When we read it on the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and our exile from our homeland almost 2,000 years ago, do we understand it as God's call to His people? Or as a demand for God's presence in history? The midrash draws a fascinating parallel between the first divine call to Adam - where are you (ayeka) - and the opening of Lamentations. "Rabbi Abahu taught: 'They, like Adam, transgressed the covenant (Hosea 6:7). This is an allusion to the first man. The Holy One, blessed be He, said of the first man: "I placed him in the Garden of Eden and commanded him [with regard to the tree], and he transgressed, and I judged him with banishment, and lamented over him, 'And the Lord called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you [ayeka]?"' (Gen. 3:9). So too, with regard to my own children - I brought them to the Land of Israel, they transgressed my commandments, and I judged them with banishment, sending them away, and lamented over them, "How [eicha] lonely sits the city..."'" (Lam. 1:1) (Lam. Rab. Prologue 4). The midrash oddly realigns the order of events. In the biblical account of the sin in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve first ate of the fruit, noticed that they were naked, covered themselves with fig leaves and then: "They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden at the breezy time of day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, 'Where are you [ayeka]?'" (Gen. 3:8-9). In the biblical text the question (or lament) comes before the judgment of banishment. In the midrash, however, the call seems to follow the exile. Perhaps the banishment begins immediately after they eat the fruit, with the human sense of shame and the compulsion to hide from the divine presence. Adam and Eve, in a sense, preempt their own exile - the voice of God, once wholly internal to human consciousness, is heard for the first time outside of themselves, wandering in the garden, looking for them, calling out: Alas! Where are you? In Jewish history, however, Jeremiah, the presumed author of Lamentations, seems to reverse the address; the "how" or "where" modulating into the cris de coeur: "why." "Why is the city lonely, which was once filled with people?" (Lam. 1:1). "Why has God, in his wrath, covered daughter Zion with a cloud of shame?" (2:1). "Why has the gold [of Jerusalem] grown dim?" (4:1). That is: God, why have You forsaken us? And the lament, eicha, has reverberated throughout history ever since, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, 1938. "Alas, God, where are You [ayeka]?" Yet, according to the midrash, God pronounces the lament. In the Garden of Eden, God was in search of man (Adam), ayeka, who had banished himself from the divine presence; so too, after the destruction of Jerusalem, God laments over the exile of his people: eicha - Alas, where are you (ayeka). Is this a mere literary trope, or a poignant case of human projection, imagining God (in His seeming absence), as a mourner over the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the banishment of His people? The penultimate verse of Lamentations, which we sing as the Torah is returned to the ark in synagogue (often to a heart-rending melody), calls for God to initiate the return: "Turn us back [hashivenu] to Yourself, O Lord, and we will return [venashuva]; renew our days as of old" (Lam. 5:21). Unlike Adam, who merely hides, it is our demand that God return us (hashivenu, in the causative hiphil) that starts the motion of reconciliation. This is precisely what Jeremiah means in his rebuke of the people: "Nor did they ask, 'Where [ayei] is the Lord that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness...?'" (Jer. 2:6, cf. vv. 8, 28). He faults them with not asking: Where is God? That is, we must make that demand to initiate the divine reentrance into history. And then the long haul homeward will begin. I think, as a young woman, I could not have understood the demand for God to cause us to return (hashivenu). But as a mother, I do. "Do you know where your children are?" The question or call first comes from home (or from heaven). Yet unlike one's mother, God is calling collect and we, as wayward adolescents, should accept the charges. The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.